Massive defense bill awaits funding fight in Congress
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 25, 2017
WASHINGTON — A push for the largest defense spending plan in several years has overcome a series of congressional hurdles this year, including approval on the Senate floor this past week.
But with plenty of competing interests at play, and an uphill battle to exceed spending caps, the National Defense Authorization Act must survive some obstacles before it can be enacted.
“It’s a big increase at a time when it’s not like someone discovered a gigantic pot of untapped money under a bridge somewhere,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington. “It doesn’t exist.”
In recent months, the House and Senate have passed defense plans totaling at or near $700 billion. That’s the largest proposal in at least five years and includes a base budget that’s well above a spending cap of $549 billion.
Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, if those limits are surpassed, it would trigger so-called sequestration, or across-the-board budget cuts. And some insiders worry a government shutdown wouldn’t be far behind.
“Automatic cuts could really be devastating,” said Mandy Smithberger, a defense expert for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group.
Now, the two chambers must not only reconcile their different versions of the bill, but also address how to fund a significant hike in spending. The move will require special congressional action to thwart sequestration impacts.
“Even though you have an administration that is more on record on wanting a much larger military, and Republicans in the House and Senate, that doesn’t change the fiscal and political realities,” Preble said. “In order to increase military spending without increasing the deficit, then you have to find the cuts elsewhere, or raise taxes, which is a nonstarter.”
Congress’ role in a deteriorating military
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signaled interest in boosting defense spending with a proposal that landed at $668 billion, which is about a 5 percent increase above the previous year’s budget. But in light of a military readiness crisis and ongoing safety concerns, defense hawks said that plan just didn’t go far enough.
In July, the House approved its $696 billion defense budget, while the Senate’s version was passed last week after hours of debate.
Both plans aim to install pay raises for servicemembers and fund new ships and aircrafts.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, shepherded his chamber’s defense bill. He has said Congress has ignored the military’s growing funding needs to its detriment.
“There is plenty of blame to go around for the deteriorated state of our military, and we cannot ignore Congress’s responsibility,” McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday during a committee hearing addressing a recent string of deadly Navy ship crashes. “Years of budget cuts, continuing resolutions, and sequestration have forced our military to maintain a high operational tempo with limited resources. We know that has come at the cost of training, maintenance, readiness, effectiveness, and the lives of too many brave young Americans.”
Reconciling the House, Senate bills
Experts say the House and Senate versions of the defense bill are broadly similar, setting up fewer fights when it comes to ironing out their policy differences.
The bills also come in at $696 billion and $700 billion for the House and Senate respectively, so the proposals are also close on their spending totals.
“I don’t see a really big fight” there, said Mark Cancian, senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “There is going to be a much bigger fight between the authorizers and the (funding) appropriators.”
The legislation moves on two tracks. The annual NDAA directs policy changes, sets a topline expenditure amount for the military and details how that money will be spent. Then an appropriations bill, which is often included in an omnibus government funding plan, is what actually moves designated money over to defense spending priorities.
Among the policy differences, the House approved a new plan for the Space Corps, a new military service that would be an arm of the Air Force.
But the idea drew opposition along the way from several key figures in the military, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The Senate, in their opposition, went as far as including language in their bill prohibiting a Space Corps.
However, it could provide a bargaining chip to the House in its discussions. And it could serve as a launching pad to creating the new service in the future, said MacKenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
“I believe the Senate will prevail and there will be no Space Corps but only this year,” Eaglen said. With the House already in favor of the idea, “supporters will come back stronger and more organized next year.”
Eaglen said it’s also possible that conference committee members will address current war authorizations.
A divided Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force approved by Congress in 2001 and 2002 for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the House adopted a watered down version of that effort by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., that would require the Trump administration to develop a new strategy to defeat terrorist groups, Eaglen said.
That’s “likely acceptable to the Senate,” she said.
Defense funding hike on the clock
When a temporary funding measure was approved earlier this month, it gave Congress at least three more months to approve a new overall spending plan for fiscal 2018, which starts Oct.1.
But that also means a new military budget is on the clock: Congress has until December to come up with a deal to fund its $700 billion defense proposal or it might have to delay its spending plans again.
Congress has been here before. Former President Barack Obama signed the 2017 defense policy plan on Dec. 23, 2016. But faced with another round of delays, a $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending bill that included the defense budget wasn’t approved until May. Until then, military operations were kept afloat by a short-term funding bill --- as is the case now.
Some experts say we could see a repeat of delays this year.
“My guess, (it) will be roughly the same date in December this year,” said Andrew Sherbo, a University of Denver finance professor who has tracked the defense bill for several years.
Several experts have said for the defense funding plan to move forward, Democrats will need to be on board to approve the proposal with a required 60 votes on the Senate floor.
And some say that in turn, they will be looking for comparable increases in non-defense spending to surpass existing budget caps.
Still, Cancian argued, the chances are good that a budget deal will be reached.
“That’s been a pattern for quite a while,” he said. “I have fair confidence that they will pass some sort of budget deal in December. That’s the history of these things.”